SUDDES: The three-act play of Ohio budgeting



Given the history of budgeting in Ohio, at least since Ohio’s income tax was enacted in 1971 (with Republican help), there’s a kind of ritual that’ll now unfold at the Statehouse.

The General Assembly took Step One last week, when hearings began in the Ohio House Finance Committee on the two-year, 2023-24 state budget ($87 billion in General Revenue and Medicaid spending) that Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has proposed.

Next, House Republicans will massage DeWine’s plan and throw in an income-tax cut because since 1985, that is, for 38 years, that’s been an invariable feature of Ohio GOP state budget rewrites in the wake of 1983 tax increases engineered by Democratic then-Gov. Richard F. Celeste and the General Assembly’s Democrats.

But that’s just Act 1 of a three-act play. In Act 2, the Senate, also Republican-run, will rework what the House did and — count on it — boost the income-tax-cut the House approved because, hey, 2024′s state Senate campaign ads need to brag about something.

And in Act 3, a Senate-House conference committee — six representatives, six senators — will chop and channel what DeWine proposed, and the House and the Senate did.

Then someday in June, near midnight, the budget conferees will spring an “omnibus budget amendment” (hundreds of pages of inscrutable legalese) on bystanders; the House and Senate will pass the resulting puzzle; DeWine will sign it; and somehow, someday, someone will de-code what the budget has actually done, or will do, to Ohioans.

That’s no easy task. The conference committee’s amendments to the now-current budget took up almost 500 pages of the Ohio House Journal. This “process” doesn’t allow any real debate beyond closed-door bickering, especially because passing a budget is often the last roadblock to the legislature’s summer recess, so the idea is to git-r-done, then split for home.

Left roadside, to pick up the pieces, and the tab, is the Ohio taxpayer.

MEANWHILE: Things are evidently still lively in the Ohio House of Representatives GOP caucus, which divided on Jan. 3 over the election of Speaker Jason Stephens, a Republican from Lawrence County’s Kitts Hill. No one in the caucus is singing Kumbaya. Not yet.

In an Ohio House with 67 Republicans and 32 Democrats, Stephens won the speakership that day (arguably, Ohio’s second-most-powerful office) because the chamber’s 32 Democrats joined with 22 Republicans to elect him. Meanwhile, with two House Republicans absent, the remaining 43 Republicans voted for suburban Toledo Republican Derek Merrin for speaker.

Not that Stephens hasn’t made some peace offerings to his GOP challengers. As previously noted, Stephens gave Merrin supporters 15 House committee chairmanships and 24 vice-chairmanships. Chairmanships and vice chairmanships entitle an Ohio House or state Senate member to extra pay; that is, with the titles come a financial sweetener and a fund-raising edge.

The House’s two most important committees are Rules and Reference — and the budget-writing Finance Committee.

Stephens himself chairs Rules and Reference. Of the panel’s seven other Republican members, Stephens named five who backed him for speaker, and two who backed Merrin but later voted for House rules Merrin’s group opposed.

The Finance Committee is chaired by a key Stephens supporter, Rep. Jay Edwards, a Nelsonville Republican. Of Finance’s 20 other Republican members, 17 voted for Stephens for speaker, one missed the speakership vote, and two others initially voted for Merrin for speaker but on Jan. 24 voted for the House rules that Stephens proposed.

Ronald Reagan, in dealing with the then-Soviet Union, adopted a policy that Stephens appears to be following in managing Ohio’s antsy House: Trust — but verify.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at

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